Too Cute


From time to time cute things cross my desk and instinctively get my attention.

Most of the “cute things” are in emails that friends and colleagues send my way in the ongoing belief that most of us need a daily “cute fix” to ground us. Recently (it’s the life cycle) the “cute things” are paraded past me by colleagues showing me cell phone photos of their “cute” grandbabies. As they are scrolling to find the “cutest” of the 400 photos they took the day before, they almost universally announce, “Is this not the cutest kid you ever saw?” I nod. I’m polite. I’m trained. I’m human.

The human part is probably most responsible for my acknowledging that “Presley,” “Emma,” “Daphne,” “Miranda,” and “Peyton” is the cutest kid I ever saw and they should retain a modeling agent immediately (before the “cuteness” fades).

Humans respond to “cute”. But what exactly is “cute”?

The Austrian ethologist (study of animal behavior) Konrad Lorenz best known for his proposed theories of imprinting (in which a young animal acquires several of its behavioral characteristics from its parent) was best known to Introductory Psychology students as the professor being followed around by a gaggle of geese who had imprinted on him. Lorenz proposed the notion of a “baby schema,” a set of facial and body features that make a creature appear “cute” and activates in others, the motivation to care for it.

This plays out every day in animal shelters, in every city where the “cute” puppies and kittens are the first to be adopted. Lorenz argued that this affinity for “cute” was “part of an evolutionary adaptation which helped ensure that adults cared for their children, ultimately securing the survival of the species.” Just ask the cute cocker spaniels (as they are whisked away from the kennel or shelter) how this plays out. Lorenz noted that humans react more positively to animals that resemble infants – with big eyes, big heads, shortened noses, etc. – then to animals that do not. America’s most beloved painter Norman Rockwell knew the ropes and was fond of quipping, “If a picture wasn’t going very well, I’d put a puppy in it.” And he did.

Beyond the ethnologists and anthropologists, perhaps the greatest authority on “cuteness” was Walt Disney; his empire was built on it. In the journal Natural History, Stephen Jay Gould remarked that “over time Mickey Mouse had been drawn more and more to resemble an infant – with a bigger head, bigger eyes, and so forth.” Gould suggested that this change in Mickey’s image was intended to increase his popularity by making him appear “cuter”. Anyone who has been to the Magic Kingdom can appreciate the “purchasing power” of cute.

So this image, this really “cute” image of a young boy with Down syndrome wearing a T-shirt that reads, “KEEP CALM it’s only an extra chromosome” crosses my screen. The T-shirt is a takeoff of the British World War Two slogan “KEEP CALM and CARRY ON” (used to inspire and motivate British citizens during the bombing raids of London and other cities by the German air force). This inspiring “cute” quote from the Down syndrome community rivals their bumper sticker that reads, “My kid has more chromosomes than your kid.”

My immediate reaction was that a large poster of this “cute” photo would be a welcome addition to our growing collection of hallway art displayed at the Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga Tennessee. Our hallways are resplendent in artwork created by our resident artist Dennis Wilkes. They have been developed to educate our staff and community to better understand intellectual and developmental disabilities and the history of the disability rights movement. This poster would help give people the opportunity to lighten up a bit, to pause and better appreciate the essence of Trisomy 21. The poster does not, in my view, dismiss or diminish the challenges inherent in the “only an extra chromosome” reality. But for a moment, and only for a moment, it invites the viewer to share the “cute” side of Down syndrome; and yes people with Down syndrome can be “cute”. They can, and are also creative, resourceful, inspiring, compassionate, athletic, hard-working, curious and forgiving (perhaps this calls for a whole line of T-shirts).

So I shot Dennis a link to the image with a note, “Dennis this would make a great addition to our hallway display; it needs to be large, perhaps 36 by 48 inches; do your magic, thanks.”

Dennis is both a creative artist and image technocrat and reports that the resolution of the image is inadequate to enlarge it and have it retain its clarity and sharpness. He suggests that we get the T-shirt and have one of our own individuals with Down syndrome to wear it and make the “cute” photograph/poster from scratch. Dennis is a genius and I quickly realize that this not only solves the technical enlargement problems but, more important, brings the “it’s only an extra chromosome” message closer to home by using one of our own individuals.

Sourcing the T shirt is easy but it also presents a dilemma. Reproducing the existing photograph is one thing, but creating one and recruiting one of our individuals to model the T-shirt is another. We realize it must be done with their full understanding and informed consent. Would our positive and good intentions be overshadowed by the potential appearance of exploitation? While we explore the right way to do the right thing, we are delighted to share this “cute” photo and to invite you to consider the adventures of living with “an extra chromosome”.

Perhaps the best “take home message” comes from Kristin Chenoweth, the sub-five foot Tony and Emmy Award winning singer and actress, who said, “I used to want to be tall, and then I thought, ‘If I were tall, then people would say I was pretty and not cute.’ And then I realized that there are worse things than being cute.”